A Mother’s Day without my mother

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

As Christopher Buckley wrote in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, when the last of your parents dies, you are an orphan. This is poignantly true if that parent is your mother.

“You lose the true keeper of your memories, your triumphs, your losses. Your mother is a scrapbook for all your enthusiasms. She is the one who validates and the one who shames, and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.”    .  

This month marks both the occasion of my mother Joanie’s birthday coincidentally the birthday of Everly Rose, the darling great-granddaughter she would never meet) and yet another Mother’s Day when I didn’t send my Mom a card and flowers. I’m getting used to that reality by now. She died on February 21st, 2012 at the age of 84.  

My mother’s life began as one of 12 children on a rural Manitoba farm in unspeakable poverty and abuse, a true story so hideous that it reads like fiction. She was somehow able to overcome the trauma of this horrific childhood through pure tenacity and a fierce work ethic (as we described in her obituary) – as well as one brilliant stroke of pure luck:  as a teenager in the 1940s, she met a good-looking young man named Peter who, like her, loved to dance. The two fell in love and then kept up that love affair – and their dancing – throughout almost four decades together. A non-smoker, he died of lung cancer at age 62 in 1983.

My mother raised five children, largely using pure animal instinct. She’d had no personal role models for good mothering. As a child growing up in unspeakable rural poverty and abuse, she had never known what it felt like to be kissed, hugged or even treated kindly by a parent. She had only a third grade education. And at the age of 13, she’d been sent away on the train to live with Ontario relatives she had never met because, as she told us in her matter-of-fact tone: “My parents told me I was too expensive to feed“.

But even as a new mother in 1950, she somehow trusted her own innate ability to care for her firstborn child (me!) 

For example, she could not bear to hear babies “cry themselves to sleep” – a common parenting trend in those days. So every evening, her baby would be sung to sleep in a rocking chair near the window. This bedtime routine continued for all five of her babies over 15 years (by then, my sister Catherine and I were taking turns rocking our baby brothers to sleep).

And despite the popularity of the ultra modern custom of bottle-feeding in the 1950s, my mother was a trailblazer in breastfeeding each of her five babies – despite little support from either her family doctor or any of her bottle-feeding friends.

For example, although she was a full-time working mother when I was born, she and my babysitter arranged a clever (pre-cell phone) way to signal whenever  her hungry baby woke up. The sitter, who lived right across the street from my parent’s corner grocery store, would close her living room curtains when I was ready for feeding. During the day, my mother would regularly check that window, and run across the street to nurse her baby if the curtains were closed. After feeding time, the curtains could open again until the next signal was due.

Until I had my own babies three decades later, I never truly appreciated how heartbreaking it must have been for her to have a sick child (my little brother, David, who was in and out of hospital throughout his toddlerhood) – as well as working full-time and raising her four older children.

As a mother, she was strict, no-nonsense and demanding with her children – all to avoid producing a child with a swelled head – the worst possible fate that could befall any kid. She was a “crazy-go-nuts” hard worker, and mercilessly expected the same from those around her.

She was short on praise, and long on expectations. You rarely had to wonder what Mom’s opinion on any subject was because she felt freely entitled to rant with an Archie Bunker-like zeal in spite of her children’s embarrassed protests: “MOM! You can’t TALK like that!”

She also had a wicked sense of humour, and a wonderful face that crinkled with delight when she laughed. My mother’s self-taught cooking and baking skills were legendary, and will live on in favourite recipes passed down through generations of her descendants – although no baker on earth could possibly duplicate my all-time favourite birthday cake: her famous Seven-Layer Mocha Walnut Torte.

As a Baba (grandmother), she showered affection and gifts upon her 11 grandbabies in a way her own children rarely experienced, but in the universal way that grandmothers everywhere might recognize.

Tragically, dementia stole the last few years of my mother’s astonishing life. When I survived a “widow maker” heart attack in 2008 (on the way home to the west coast from celebrating her 80th birthday), we made a family decision not to even tell her. She lived thousands of miles away, after all, was lucid during only brief periods each day, and would likely either forget this news, or be confused and worried at being repeatedly reminded of something bad happening to one of her children.

.  ……….Mom, me and my daughter Larissa on my mother’s 80th birthday

And finally, as I spend Mother’s Day with my own wonderful kidlets today, we’ll all be thinking of their Baba, and remembering that she’s responsible for the people we have become.

I know she would have heartily agreed with Tenneva Jordan‘s famous definition of motherhood:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

Joan Zaruk   ♥  May 7, 1928 – February 21, 2012

Rest in peace, Mom – Happy Mother’s Day


Based on a post originally published here on May 13, 2012


♥  ♥ ♥  Happy Mother’s Day to my daughter Larissa (the mother of our Everly Rose), to my daughter-in-law Paula (mother of our Baby Zack), to all the Mums in my family, and to all of my dear readers who are mothers or who have had mothers.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how our family relationships impact chronic illness in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the JHUP code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).


Q:  Are you too marking Mother’s Day without your mom this year?

See also:

Why I’m Nothing Like – Yet Just Like – My Mother

– When Your Mother Dies



  • “Goodbye Mom” – cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola‘s moving tribute to his mother

21 thoughts on “A Mother’s Day without my mother

  1. My Mum died a year ago on 20th May. I found it incredibly hard as I do every day but I know she is with me when I look at my hands wearing her rings or catch myself in the mirror with my new short haircut.

    I talk to her everyday in my mind so I won’t lose the memory of her voice. I miss her so much, she was 90 years old and almost 91. At the end she just wanted to be with her beloved Stephen so I know she is at peace after terrible suffering. 💖💔💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Cathran – you’re arriving at a sad anniversary, just one year following your loss. I’m so sorry that your mother had to go through “terrible suffering”. When I worked in hospice palliative care, our bereavement counselors found that this first year is often the hardest for most loved ones to get through. So many ‘firsts’: the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Mother’s Day and the first of each annual get-together or outing where Mum will not be participating for the first time ever. May 20th will be a major milestone in your grieving. Here’s some bereavement information that you might find helpful leading up to that day, e.g. “The anniversary of the person’s death is also likely to be a significant day for you. Although these days can be trying, you may find them easier if you make plans ahead of time. How might you spend the day? Are there people you would like to ask to spend time with you? Is there a particular place you’d like to be – or avoid?”


      1. Thank you Carolyn, today is the anniversary. Your bereavement information was so helpful, it’s not easy but I’m doing okay. My little great grandson William is 5 months old today and I received the most beautiful photos of him. I just wish my Mum could have seen him.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So sorry for posting here. I’m new to this site and not sure how to use it. I apologize.

    My Dad has a pacemaker put in last Friday. Today he took a walk and had shortness of breath going up a small hill. He’s overweight and has mild congestive heart failure.

    Other than that he’s feeling better. He feels more clear headed. He is moving around and even showered with barely any shortness of breath. Hasn’t been able to do that for weeks. So we are happy to see this.

    But that incline today, he had the shortness of breath. It went away with rest after about 7 mins. He can even hold a conversation now without getting winded.

    So was the incline too much too soon? I told him stick to flat for walking for a few weeks. Other than that he’s doing good. Any insights? Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joanne – I’m guessing that you were likely reading the pacemaker article when you decided to leave a comment here. Perfectly understandable that you’d land on the latest (top of the page) article. It’s pretty easy to leave comments here – just below every article, there’s a little comment form you can fill out if you’d like to leave a comment or ask me a direct question. Under every reader comment you’ll also see the word “REPLY”, and if you click on that you’ll find the same comment form to reply to another reader.

      But I’m happy to address your comment, wherever it ends up!

      I’m not a physician so I can’t address the specifics of your Dad’s pacemaker experience, but I can say generally that he is in very early days yet! You’re smart to advise him “too much, too soon”. Each pacemaker patient is different, but generally it’s not uncommon for an overweight person with heart failure to experience a bit of shortness of breath that comes on with exertion (going up the hill) and goes away with rest – pacemaker or no pacemaker. And it sounds like he is improving in some areas that likely are a big relief to him – like being able to have a “normal” conversation!

      Meanwhile, he might want to call his physician just to get this shortness of breath episode checked out. And if you return to the pacemaker article, there are some links down at the bottom; you might want to click for other resources (free pacemaker support groups) for lots of practical day-to-day tips.


  3. I never tire of reading this wonderful tribute Carolyn. She certainly produced a terrific daughter and would be so proud of all you have achieved. Happy Mother’s Day to an awesome Mum and Baba.💕

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Carolyn,

    I absolutely loved reading this poignant post about your dear mother. My goodness, what an incredible story hers is. Have you ever considered writing another book? A memoir perhaps? If not, I think you should.

    After my dad died, I bought the book, “The Orphaned Adult”. I have yet to write about my feelings about this in a blog post. It’s still difficult for me to completely come to terms with being parent-less. At my age, this is sort of ridiculous, I suppose. And yet… Anyway, I’ll get to that post. Eventually.

    It must be quite lovely and comforting, too, that your sweet Everly Rose’s birthday is the same as your mother’s. My daughter chose my mother’s birthday, June 8th, as her wedding date, and that was a gesture that still warms my heart and can still bring tears to my eyes. The date was also my parents’ wedding date.

    Hope you had a lovely Mother’s Day, Carolyn. Thank you for this lovely post and for sharing the wonderful photos too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Nancy and thanks for your comments here. I haven’t read the book, The Orphaned Adult, but I remember reading something, somewhere that opined, “When your parent dies, you take one step closer to the turnstile…”

      Our parents are one level of separation between us and our own mortality, but when they’re gone, that buffer is gone too.

      I love the idea that your daughter’s wedding was also your mom’s birthday (and her anniversary!) Must have made it a bit easier for your Dad – I bet your mother got many ‘combination’ gifts – like those with Christmas birthdays get!

      Everly Rose is barely 4 (last week) but we’ve already mentioned frequently that she seems to have clearly adopted her grandmother’s feisty personality!

      And no, I haven’t thought of writing another book anytime soon – but I gues we should never say never, right?


  5. This was a beautiful piece. Thank you.

    It reminded me of my mom and her life. Many similarities in upbringing. She passed on January 6, 2012 and I had my heart event in March of 2012. I remember the original post of 2012. It helped me get through a very difficult day.

    Happy mother’s day to all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Carolyn,
    Thank you for sharing your mother’s story – what a wondrous triumph of resilience her life proved to be! My mother, too, has passed away (in 2001), and also struggled in her life with serious family issues as a child and a severe case of bipolar disorder herself.

    In spite of all her challenges, she had a successful, loving marriage, raised 4 daughters and had a very fulfilled life, I believe. She was a beautiful loving woman who loved all her children and grandchildren unconditionally, even though I don’t think she experienced that from her own parents. She was very close to her maternal grandparents and that may have saved her.

    I remember the first time I read the story of your mother, you included her meat loaf recipe – I tried it and it was delicious! Thanks for sharing her story again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris – thanks for that reminder about the meat loaf! My son and I were just chatting about summer coming, and pretty soon it will be too hot to be planning family dinners that require the oven being turned on! Maybe there’s still time for one more of my mother’s meat loaves before it gets too hot to cook…

      It’s amazing to me that women like your mother (and mine) can go through childhood with unspeakable challenges, and yet grow up to love their own kids and grandkids. We used to say in our family that it was a miracle that our mother didn’t turn out be be a serial killer given her own abusive and hate-filled upbringing!

      Your comment about her maternal grandparents “saving” her is probably right on the money. When I was writing about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) being significantly linked to developing serious chronic illness later in life, I learned that the one factor that could potentially interrupt that correlation was if the child had even one person (a grandparent, or teacher or some other significant adult) who treated the child with kindness and respect. That positive and caring influence seems to have the power to stop the downward spiral despite a childhood filled with struggle and pain.


  7. A beautiful tribute to a woman of fierce determination and love, based on your description. She is one of the legion of people that heroically forge a path to glory through a difficult passage through life.

    They are self-reliant, unfailingly reliable, always determined, hardworking and always guided by a morality and generosity of spirit which leaves a powerful legacy for their family to follow.

    I can write these words easily as I too have one of these people in my life. We are— or in your case, were— lucky!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Maxine – I’ve come to realize over the decades that one of the reasons my own mother was so fiercely determined and self-reliant was that her childhood had beaten out every shred of self-esteem she might have developed had she grown up in a “normal” family. Every action she took, every word she spoke was meant to “prove something” to herself to everybody around her, that she was good, that she was smart, that she knew things and could do them better than anybody else.

      Although I NEVER would have described her as “generous” as a child, when I grew up I learned I had to stop admiring things in store window displays when we went out shopping together, because if I ever said “Oh, look at that lovely scarf!” she would INSIST on dragging me into the shop to buy it for me.


  8. Carolyn, your mother’s story is incredible. She is a hero to all of us, even to those of us who are not mothers. Every Mother’s Day I think of my own mother who passed away of advanced pancreatic cancer in 2002 – my brother and I had only three months to spend with her once she was diagnosed.

    She gave me unconditional love as I struggled through anorexia, severe depression and borderline personality disorder. One of my greatest regrets is that she did not live to see my triumph over these psychiatric illnesses. This Memorial Day weekend will be the first anniversary of my stroke and this year has been my most difficult in a long time. There have been many moments where I’ve been acutely aware of her absence.

    I post a blog on the website of Psychology Today (under a pseudonym). On Mother’s Day, 2015 I wrote a post titled “I Still Miss My Mother” which amassed over 59,000 hits. I continue to receive e-mails from readers who relate to what I wrote. You can read the post here:

    Thank you Carolyn, for allowing all us adult woman to miss our mothers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Andrea for sharing that story (and your article, which I loved, especially the butterfly story, and this important line: ” …the first step was learning that she was human, and taking her down off the pedestal that I had placed her on.”) This wise reminder could help the rest of us when we’re tempted to be disappointed with our own mothers’ flaws – the flaws that all humans have.

      I hope that the worst is over given your past year, and that you’ve turned a corner. Thanks again…


      1. My mother died from rheumatic heart disease when I was 10 years old which was 61 years ago. I still miss my mother.

        I just discovered Heart Sisters. I have been diagnosed with heart disease at the end of March 2019 with over 70% blockage in my main artery. I am waiting to have an angiogram at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria B.C.

        I feel Heart Sisters to be a very special Mother’s Day gift. Thank you Carolyn.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hello Rose-Marie – I live in Victoria, too! You’re in very early days yet, so I hope you are taking it easy as you try to wrap your head around your very new diagnosis. If you haven’t already, please look into signing up for the 7-week Heart To Heart classes run by the non-profit Victoria Cardiac Rehabilitation Society. Classes run all year long. The next series starts in June – more details here.

          10 years old is an awful age to lose your Mum (there’s no ‘good’ age, of course, but that seems to me to be such a pivotal time of a young girl’s life. No wonder you still miss her…

          Good luck to you with your angiogram.


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